Thursday, 6 October 2011

The new UK physical activity guidelines - why they matter, and why we need a 20:20 vision

Earlier in the month, I listened to Len Almond talking about the new UK Physical Activity Guidelines for the Early Years. You would be forgiven for wondering what these guidelines are all about, because they were hardly noticed by the media when they were launched earlier in the summer.

They make a clear argument: “there is emerging evidence that sedentary behaviour in the early years is associated with overweight and obesity as well as lower cognitive development.” Additionally, patterns for screen time (TV, computer games etc) and being sedentary seem to be pretty stable over time. In other words, less active toddlers are likely to continue that way through their childhood and beyond, to the detriment of their health and their learning.

If all children in the early years could be highly active for just an additional 40 minutes a day, their health would improve greatly. That means just an extra 20 minutes in nursery, and an extra 20 minutes at home – spread across the day – for children who are walking unaided (there are separate guidelines for babies). That sounds like a small enough change. A "twenty-twenty" vision.

But just providing better opportunities for highly physically-active play will not be enough.
When I was headteacher at Kate Greenaway Nursery School, we took part in a research project led by the National Children’s Bureau [PDF] which tracked the actual levels of activity amongst the children. I was confident that with our lovely garden, bikes, climbing equipment, indoor development movement play area and more, the children would be observed to be highly active. In fact, quite a few were hardly moving at all.

I am not proposing periods of compulsory movement for young children. But in their absence, how can we be sure that they are active enough?

The NCB researchers found that children are much more active when adults are active too. When adults “supervise” outside, children move less. So, in principle, more adult movement outside, and more time dedicated to approaches which involve adult participation, like Developmental Movement Play from Jabadao, will increase children’s activity levels. In addition, by getting parents involved, encouraging family trips to the park, walking, swimming and playing outside, we can make it much more the norm for every young child to be much more active.

We may not achieve 100% success – but without moving to compulsion, we could do a great deal more to encourage children to be more active.

First published in Nursery World

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